By Claire Boston, University of Missouri , Farhin Lilywala, Georgia Perimeter College, Melhor Leonor, Florida International University, Sean Stewart-Muniz, University of Florida and Nicole Wiesenthal, University of Florida
On the night of Aug. 31, Linda Lampert was on a mission. She had been living in the homeless shelter for five months and knew a man who slept in a thicket of sea grapes near Dania Beach.
She disappeared into the thicket while COSAC shelter staff stood by. The group regularly goes on such excursions to coax homeless men and women who sleep outdoors to come to the shelter.
“It’s a psychological game of chess, a different chess game. Tryin’ to convince someone you have something better for them,” said Ron Gauthier, operations staff member at COSAC, who was homeless at one point. “Ultimately, the choice is theirs.”
‘At least you’ve done something.’
Gauthier has driven on outreach trips nine of the ten years he’s worked with COSAC. He’ll make four or five trips a year, and has varying success in getting people off the streets. Sometimes, especially in colder months, he’ll convince them to come into the shelter. He said most only stay a night, but that’s enough time to get fresh clothes, a meal, a hot shower and a night’s sleep.
“It’s worth it because we got someone off the street,” Gauthier said.
Most shelter residents come in on their own volition, but Gauthier said the point of outreach is to make sure those further from the shelter know that it exists.
“All you can do is give them the same opportunity as the ones who walk in of the street,” Gauthier said. “At least you’ve done something.”
Gauthier has had enough shelter jobs to fill a resume. As a shelter resident, he worked as a Homeless Voice vendor and ran the kitchen. He later kept track of van maintenance and began driving the ambulance. He’s stuck with his ambulance driving job, even after leaving the shelter and moving into his own place.
The ambulance is a tippy old thing with shoddy circuitry. The air conditioning rattles away but blows no cool air. Lights in the back turn on and off at random. Sometimes, the ambulance’s emergency lights flash too.
Gauthier is only authorized to turn on the lights on for real emergencies like natural disasters. But they flickered a couple times when he was on the road. At one point, a line of cars at a red light began pulling to the side.
He said driving the ambulance and doing outreach is a way of giving back to a shelter that once helped him. And even if outreach rarely results in new clients, Gauthier said he plans on continuing with the work for the rest of his life.
“It’s not a game of winning or losing,” Gauthier said of getting people off the streets. “It’s a game of believing and trusting that you’re doing the right thing.”
‘Sick and tired of being sick and tired’
In one of the vans tailing the ambulance, Andrew and Alex Johnson traded jokes heavy with thickened vowels and trailing consonants.
The two met six years ago in the shelter and bonded over shared experiences: both men are veterans of homelessness. They come from rough backgrounds — drugs, crime and broken families.
Both have been on and off the streets for decades.
After working off their rent at the shelter and earning their driver’s licenses from the state, Andrew and Alex decided to help those much like their former selves.
Andrew battled a crack addiction that led to his homelessness in the 1980s. The drug continued to haunt him as he passed in and out of homeless shelters, never staying for longer than a few weeks.
His brother introduced him to drugs after their mother died, and his addiction to crack started soon after. He said the vans he drives now didn’t reach deep enough into the ghetto to bring him help — but he wasn’t ready for it anyway.
He said many homeless people feel the same and refuse aid when the shelter’s vans pull up. Some want independence, others don’t want to risk easy access to drugs.
The biting loneliness led him to seek help. After what was left of his family turned its back on him for stealing a TV and cash from their house, he had no place to go and no one to turn to.
“No family, no football, no basketball,” Andrew said.
Alex took addiction to the next step — he started selling crack.
It was easy money, and with family deaths causing flare-ups for his schizophrenia, it kept him funded while he was on the streets.
But a roughly seven-year prison sentence for a probation violation convinced him to try a more honest path.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said.
After frequenting the government-run shelters in Broward County, he found a home at COSAC, a shelter run by the formerly homeless.
Now Andrew and Alex work as a team to bring people off the same streets that fed their addictions.
‘They’re more comfortable where they are’
Lampert herself was found on one of these excursions. She was laying on top of a piece of cardboard near a tree sleeping and wary that somebody would steal her belongings.
“Honey, you don’t know who’s going to rob you, take your shoes,” Lampert said. “You think you’re gonna [find me] in the woods? Nope. Heavens no!”
After many nights outdoors, she learned how to survive.
“Rule number one: you always sit in a crowd,” Lampert said.
The man she was looking for the night of Aug. 31, known to everyone as Alfie, was part of her crowd. They partnered for a while, but when it got cold last winter, she decided to get in the van and go to the shelter. At the time, he refused.
“They’re more comfortable where they are,” Lampert said.
This time, she hoped he would change his mind.
After ten minutes within the dark bushes and with the team standing by, Lampert emerged with Alfie on her trail.
“I just told him, ‘come,’” Lampert said.
He was leaning on a walker, graying, and exuding a foul smell. She was cautious about letting the staff speak to him, fearful he would change his mind.
In the end, Alfie chose to not stay.